By 1929, Winston Churchill found himself out of office and entering a time of unexpected and unwelcome inaction and introspection. He therefore embarked on what was to be a four-volume biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. John Churchill (1650-1722) had risen, through sheer ambition, to become one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain, influential at the courts of five different monarchs, from James II to Queen Anne. His fame and fortune was based on his skills as a diplomat and his remarkable success as a general, with a string of stunning victories on the continent during the War of the Spanish Succession, including that at Blenheim (1704). Showered with riches by a ‘grateful nation’, John Churchill commissioned Vanbrugh to build him a spectacular house, in the Baroque style, that would take its name from this famous battlefield – the palace in which Winston Spencer Churchill would be born a century and a half later.
The tapestry room at Blenheim Palace commemorates the military campaign that paid for the surrounding splendour. Winston would have known them well from childhood, but as he sat to paint them in 1930, the glory they depict must have held a bittersweet taste. The First Duke had also suffered from a fall from grace (with the building of the Palace itself having much to do with it). And so he decided to paint these trophies of a man’s success in all their rich, golden, flickering glory. It is a celebration of what it means to be a Churchill at the best of times, a riposte to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In Painting as a Pastime, Churchill confessed to a weakness for bright colour and here, in Tapestries at Blenheim, he revels in the opportunities afforded by the sumptuous gilding of the walls and furniture, the emerald green of the chairs, the reds and blues of the tapestry border (rendered with an Impressionist’s eye) and the intense turquoise of the room beyond.
Around the time the present work was painted, Sickert was a particularly close friend and mentor. Unlike Churchill however, Sickert was not attracted to bright colours, quite the opposite in fact, and of the techniques he taught Churchill, one was how to paint in monochrome. Tapestries at Blenheim certainly has the feel of a Sickert, in the way it is concerned more with the painting’s surface than the subject matter itself, but the palette is entirely Churchill's own, a very un-Sickert riot of red, blue and gold.
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